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NEW YORK — A federal judge on Friday found that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records is legal and a valuable part of the nation’s arsenal to counter the threat of terrorism.U.S. District Judge William Pauley said in a written opinion that the program “represents the government’s counter-punch” to eliminate al Qaeda’s terror network by connecting fragmented and fleeting communications.In ruling, the judge noted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and how the phone data-collection system could have helped investigators connect the dots before the attacks occurred.“The government learned from its mistake and adapted to confront a new enemy: a terror network capable of orchestrating attacks across the world. It launched a number of counter-measures, including a bulk telephony metadata collection program — a wide net that could find and isolate gossamer contacts among suspected terrorists in an ocean of seemingly disconnected data,” he said.Pauley’s decision contrasts with a ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon, who granted a preliminary injunction against the collecting of phone records of two men who had challenged the program. The Washington jurist said the program likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search.Pauley dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU did not immediately respond to a message for comment.“We are pleased with the decision,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.In arguments before Pauley last month, an ACLU lawyer had argued that the government’s interpretation of its authority under the Patriot Act was so broad that it could justify the mass collection of financial, health and even library records of innocent Americans without their knowledge. A government lawyer had countered that counterterrorism investigators wouldn’t find most personal information useful.